What Is A Japanese Home’s Engawa?

An engawa, also known as an en, is a porch-like edge that surrounds buildings in Japanese architecture. Storm shutters or glass typically enclose an engawa, although some are open-air like a patio. Additionally, the area under an engawa slopes away from the home to help prevent drainage issues.

The engawa is among the most iconic and elegant features of Japanese homes. Generally made of wood or bamboo, they allow people to enjoy nature and provide lots of natural light.

Additionally, the engawa holds significance in the culture and tradition of Japan.

Structure and Design of Engawa

An engawa derives its structural support from two rows of wooden posts. One runs along the inside of the engawa, with shōji (screens made of wood lattice and paper) connecting them. The other row runs along the outside edge and is often linked with amado (storm doors) or glass. 

In some homes, the engawa may not have doors or windows on the outer part of the engawa but rather an open-air screenless or windowless area.

Traditionally, these posts rest upon buried stones. Although, concrete support is more common in the modern day. During pleasant weather, both the shōji and amado can be left open to let in light and fresh air.

Engawa may surround an entire home, but it’s common for them to only be on one side. Additionally, engawa may connect buildings by forming a veranda-like hallway. In temples, they often provide access to shrines leading from the main hall.

The engawa entry is not always a single step or level. Many homes feature two or three tiers of engawa, sometimes separated by screens or railings.

Additionally, the finish of wooden engawa flooring and posts vary significantly. They can be rough and natural or lacquered and painted.

Parts of a Japanese Home’s Engawa

Here are some of the parts and areas of an engawa that you should know:

  • Fume-ishi: A stone step below the entrance of an engawa used for leaving your shoes.
  • Nureen: Describes an en or part of an en not protected by an amado or eaves. Translating to “wet en,” the floor of the nureen is exposed during rain.
  • Ochi-en:Describes an en set below the floor or another en. The term also refers to the outer part of a single engawa.
  • Hiro-en:Can describe both the innermost en or inner part of a single en.

Identifying parts of an engawa can be tricky for newcomers. Because when there is only one or two en present, the above terms may often describe the same things.

Practical Purposes of Engawa

Engawas serve several purposes, which may vary depending on their design.

First and foremost, engawa is a place for enjoying nature. In Japan, it’s common for people to watch their gardens and ponds while relaxing. And an en offers a raised viewing position and protection from the elements while doing so.

Engawa also filled a gap in Japanese architecture. 

Traditional-style houses often had very long eaves to keep out heavy or windblown rainfall. As a result, these homes had wide dry patches surrounding them. Building engawa allowed people to make the most of that area with additional interior-like space.

Furthermore, engawas provide much-needed drainage. Specifically, the sloped area out from the roof helps carry excess water away from homes during Japan’s rainy season.

This design defends against flooding and also prevents standing water around the home.

Types of Engawa

Engawa comes in numerous styles and forms. Even the way the planks of an engawa are laid can affect what they’re called.

Below are the most common types of engawa:

  • Kirime-en: An engawa with boards laid along its width.
  • Kure-en:An engawa with boards running its length.
  • Mawari-en: An engawa that wraps around the entire building. Similar to a porch or veranda.
  • Sunoko-en: A slatted en providing excellent drainage and preventing standing water.
  • Takesunoko-en: Similar to a sunoko-en but made of bamboo. Such an en ordinarily has a more natural and rustic style.

Deciding on the right engawa style isn’t just about appearances. For example, takesunoko-en are perfect for rainy regions where floor drainage is crucial. 

Additionally, an engawa doesn’t always need to face outward. They may also surround a tsubo-niwa, which is a tiny courtyard garden located within some homes.

The History of Engawa 

It isn’t clear when exactly the engawa first appeared in Japan. However, many historians believe the architectural feature emerged in the Jōmon period (14,000–300 BCE). 

The engawa at first was an adaptation to the heavy rainfall parts of Japan experienced. The eaves on many homes were long to keep out precipitation. And this roof design formed a dry area around buildings where people would build the engawa.

Furthermore, the ground and area under the engawa slopes gave many homes much-needed drainage. 

Over time, engawa grew into status symbols. Aristocrats often had them built for observing their gardens and ponds throughout the Heian and Edo periods. As Japan industrialized, the engawa became more common in middle and lower-class homes as well.

However, Westernization in the country led to them falling out of fashion in the 20th century. Patios and verandas in the European style replaced them during this time.

Thankfully, the engawa enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the last couple of decades. 

Many architects worldwide now include them in the designs of modern homes. They’re an excellent way to expand interior space and feel closer to nature. 

Glass panes, which can often slide, enclose most engawa in modern Japanese homes. This feature allows the engawa to act as both a sunroom or veranda depending on the weather.

Culture and Traditions Behind The Engawa

The engawa is one of Japan’s most culturally significant architectural innovations. 

Traditionally, these spaces serve as a place for guests to relax and children to play. On warm summer days, families and friends can lounge on them while sipping tea. And when it’s cold out, closing the amado can turn an en into a sunroom.

Most Japanese people consider the engawa as part of a home’s interior. As a result, you should remove your shoes before stepping onto one. Typically, there’s a stone called a fume-ishi below the engawa where you may leave footwear.

The engawa also features prominently in Japanese art across virtually all periods. They’re the setting of many renowned woodblock prints, such as Engawa no wakashū to onna.

Finally, the engawa plays a vital role in the traditional philosophies of Japan. Many people in the country believe enjoying nature is beneficial for the mind and soul. And an engawa provides a convenient place to do just that. 

A Closer Look At The Japanese Homes Engawa

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.